Rebecca Thomas’ Electrick Children is an impressive debut feature about a young girl’s coming of age in a Mormon family. Set in the desert wilds of Utah, this beautifully photographed and gently paced ‘indie’ captures the wonderful spirit and times of awakening teen sexuality. Reflecting some of the 28yr old writer/director’s own experiences with the Mormon faith, she casts the delightful wide-eyed Julia Garner (Martha Marcy May Marlene) in the lead as the naive Rachel, who, upon her first hearing of recorded music (rock ‘n roll no less) via a tape cassette becomes enraptured and subsequently pregnant.
Thomas’ wild and fanciful premise is a delicious hook, sustained with the utmost sincerity, but where a more naive writer may want to offer an explanation, she does something more engaging and weaves a subplot that cleverly subverts the very tenets of the patriachal structure we find in the Mormon faith. Rachel’s father played with supreme gentility by Billy Zane expressively forbids her to hear the tape. Knowing that its underlying messages will lead to undermining not just his authority, but that it will also render him impotent. As such Thomas opens up a space in the film for the women in the family to test this authority. At the insistence of Rachel and her many younger sisters they are re-told a story of a mythological Mustang by her mother. This bedtime story, of the galloping untamed horses is visually juxtaposed with a red Mustang car. It’s symbolism is clear, the scene acts as a wonderful rite-of-passage extending between mother and daughter with the explicit message to follow your (sexual) desires. It’s a cleverly photographed sequence that reveals more to Rachel than just her mothers sexual fantasy. So while it appears that Rachel’s sexual awakening may appear at the sound of Rock n Roll music, the tape and the music contained is but the mere guide, to which Rachel uses once she is compelled to escape the family upon hearing of her soon to be arranged marriage.
It’s at this point however that the film loses some traction. Rachel is thus propelled to Sin City, Vegas, to find the voice on the tape, convinced that, it is he who has impregnated her, to which Rachel inevitably collides with her peers from the ‘secular’ world namely a rag tag bunch of dissaffected teens led by the handsome Rory Culkin, channelling the look of a young Emilio Estevez, albeit with long dirty hair. The film then treads predictable ground as a fish-out-of-water story as both Rachel and her stowaway brother Will (Liam Aiken) are the subject of gentle mockery at the hands of the group, but Thomas uses the time to also indulge in their innocence and sexuality, more in form than content. The shirtless boys skating spices the picture and is some nice eye candy for the girls, all the while gently teasing out some character motivations for both Aiken and Culkin. But all this seems rather inconsequential to the brilliance of Garner, whose Rachel maintains a consistent feminine naiveté and steely determination through her role. Blessed with gorgeous blonde angelic curls, her soft features and gentle nature are exquisitely photographed by Thomas’ camera and are a pleasure to behold.
While Electrick Children is full of stylistic indulgences and a predominant femine sensibility that will appeal to most of the intended audiences, one can’t help but wonder was there not a fundamental opportunity to move the film into a permanent state of freedom and desire for Rachel. For all the effort Thomas took to undermine the paternal authority she very quickly reconstitutes the ‘familiar’ structure , albeit in a younger, modern version, and while the music plays on, it too seems to have lost its allure. What is left, is the idea that you can have your fun, but eventuallly you will need a man to look after you. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but at least consider some alternatives. Nonetheless, this is an impressive first feature.
Electrick Children is in cinemas 13th July 2012.
Director: Rebecca Thomas
Writer: Rebecca Thomas
Stars:Julia Garner, Rory Culkin and Liam Aiken
Runtime: 96 min